“Everything you read in newspapers is absolutely true,” wrote Erwin Knoll, “except for that rare story of which you happen to have first-hand knowledge.” This is what happens when people become feel-good stories and symbols. Whenever we try to condense lives into convenient narratives — from Joe the Plumber to Joe Paterno — life wriggles out from under us.
The theme of Yale quarterback Patrick Witt’s well-documented hero story was difficult choices. He famously missed his Rhodes Scholarship interview in order to play in the Harvard-Yale game this November.
Attend the interview to talk about your prowess as an athlete, scholar, and man of character — while skipping a critical game? Or miss the Rhodes interview — and with it, the chance of a highly prestigious scholarship?
But then the New York Times reported Friday that Witt didn't have the same choice we thought.
The Times stated that, at the time of The Game, Witt may no longer have been a Rhodes finalist. The committee had suspended his candidacy, the newspaper said, after hearing that he had been accused of sexual assault.
At first glance, this would seem to be another chapter in a story we know so well.
Still, before this sort of thing emerges atop the Times sports pages, I wish the newspaper itself had known a little more. For another article, this one published in the New Haven Register, amounts to a full denial of the account in the Times.
Witt, who did not respond to the Times’s attempts to get a comment, provided a statement to the Register through a representative.
“The New York Times story incorrectly connects Patrick’s decision to forego the Rhodes Scholarship with an informal complaint process that had concluded on campus weeks prior to his withdrawal – a process that yielded no disciplinary measures, formal reports, or referrals to higher authorities,” Witt’s statement reads.
“To be clear, Patrick’s Rhodes candidacy was never ‘suspended’, as the article suggests, and his official record at Yale contains no disciplinary issues,” it continued.
Witt’s statement lays out the timeline leading up to his withdrawal, and he holds to his position that he withdrew from the Rhodes process because it interfered with the date of Yale’s final football game, not because of questions from the Rhodes Trust.
Where does all this leave us — with the sole feel-good college sports news story in a glut of bad news? Or with the usual tale of institutions scrambling to keep their program out of the papers? Neither narrative quite fits.
It seems as though nearly everyone involved in the story of this hard choice made the wrong call. The Yale Daily News is now under fire for allegedly sitting on the story for months. Meanwhile, given the stakes for Witt, the New York Times should have gone farther in its reporting rather than to note that not only did it not speak with his alleged accuser, who filed no police report, but it “does not know her name.”
Leaping to condemn athletes at elite institutions is something of a national pastime. With the Patrick Witt story, I’m instantly reminded of the Duke lacrosse players. But this is only a pushback against decades where privilege won silence, where attendance at an elite institution subjected you to decreased, rather than increased, scrutiny.
And the whole process by which a female college student could bring something short of what the Times describes as “what Yale considers a formal complaint” raises questions about the separate rules under which college students can drink, commit infractions and generally carry on without facing real-world consequences — a necessary cushion for people with partially formed brains? Or a dangerous double standard?
No matter what, it’s proof of the peculiar things that ordinarily sane and rational people will do when reputation is on the line. The care they’ll put into protecting the Program or the Institution is only matched by the carelessness with which this sort of life-shattering allegation can surface against an individual. If false, he will suffer enormously. If true, he made someone else suffer — while the nation applauded him.
But if Witt’s story was gripping before, it’s better now. The only thing we love as much as good stories is debunking them.
Either way, it’s a tragedy.